The Twelfth Album
In the bowels of a ship that would never sail again—mourning our friend Sick Note—Lightoller and I sat cross-legged on the carpet of a disused Turkish Bath, and listened to John Lennon.
‘Fooking hell,’ said Lightoller. ‘That’s “Give Me Some Truth”. It was on the Imagine album. But—’
Lightoller, he says now, knew there was something different about the cut from the first chord. It might even be true. That’s Lightoller for you.
‘Typical Lennon,’ he said moodily. ‘He goes whole bars on a single note, a single fooking chord. Manoeuvring around the harmonies like a crab. But—’
‘Where’s the fooking echo? Lennon solo always drowned his vocals. This is clean and hoarse. Sounds more like a George Martin production.’
Not very interested, I was staring at the ceiling. Gilded beams in crimson.
We never knew how Sick Note had managed to blag himself quarters on the ship itself, let alone the Turkish Bath.
It was a whole set of rooms, with a mosaic floor, blue-green tiled walls, stanchions enclosed in carved teak. Queen Victoria’s nightmare if she’d been goosed by Rudolph Valentino. As Lightoller said, Sick Note must have been the best fooking porter in this whole floating fooking hotel.
‘Of course,’ Lightoller was saying, ‘it’s plausible they’d have used this. Lennon offered it as a Beatles song during the Let It Be sessions in Feb ’69. It was the way they worked. They were trying out songs that finished up on Let It Be and Abbey Road, even their solo albums, as far back as early 1968—’
‘Who would have used the song for what?’
‘The Beatles. On their next album. The twelfth.’
Compared to Lightoller, and Sick Note, I’m a dilettante. But I’m enough of a Fabs fan to spot the problem with that.
I said, ‘The Beatles released eleven LPs, from Please Please Me through Let It Be.’
‘You’re counting UK releases,’ said Lightoller.
‘And you don’t include, for instance, the Yellow Submarine album which was mostly a George Martin movie score, or the Magical Mystery Tour album they released in the US, or the EPs—’
‘Naturally not. So there was no twelfth Beatle album.’
‘Not in this fooking world,’ said Lightoller mysteriously.
John sang on, raw and powerful.
Oddly enough, Lightoller and I had been talking about other worlds even before we found the album, in Sick Note’s abandoned quarters, deep inside the old ship.
You have to picture the scene.
I suppose you’d call it a wake: twenty, thirty blokes of indeterminate age standing around in the Cafe Parisien on B Deck—loaned by the floating hotel’s owners for the occasion, all tumbling trellises and ivy pots and wicker chairs—drinking beer and wine we’d brought ourselves, and looking unsuccessfully for tortilla chips.
‘Morgan Robertson,’ Lightoller had said around a mouthful of Monster Munches.
‘Novelist. 1890s. Writes about a fooking big Atlantic liner, bigger than anything built before. Loads it with rich and complacent people, and wrecks it one cold April night on an iceberg. Called his ship the Titan—’
‘Spooky,’ I said dryly.
‘In another world—’
Lightoller is full of crap like that, and not shy about sharing it.
But I welcomed Lightoller’s bullshit, for once; we were, after all, just distracting ourselves from the fact that Sick Note was gone. What else are words for, at a time like that?
Bored, morbid, a little drunk, we had wandered off, through the ship, in search of Sick Note.
We had come through the foyer on A Deck, with its huge glass dome, the oak panelling, the balustrades with their wrought-iron scroll work, the gigantic wall clock with its two bronze nymphs. All faded and much scarred by restoration, of course. Like the ship. Like the city outside which we could glimpse through the windows: the shops and maritime museums of Albert Dock to which the ship was forevermore bolted, and the Liverpool waterfront beyond, all of it under a suitably grey sky.
I said something about it being as if they’d towed the Adelphi Hotel into Liverpool Bay. Lightoller made a ribald remark about Sick Note and the nymphs.
We had walked on, down the grand stairway from the boat deck, along the corridor where the valets and maids of the firstclass passengers used to stay, past the second-class library and the third-class lounge, down the broad stairs towards steerage.
The second track was, of all things, ‘It Don’t Come Easy’.
‘Ringo,’ I said.
‘Yeah. Solo single in April ’71.’
I strained to listen. I couldn’t tell if it was different. Was the production a little sharper?
‘Every Night’, the next track, was Paul: just McCartney being McCartney, pretty much as he recorded it on his first solo album.
‘Sentimental pap,’ I said.
Lightoller frowned. ‘Listen to it. The way he manages the shift from minor to major—’
‘Oldest trick in the book.’
‘McCartney could make the sun come out, just by his fooking chromatic structure.’
‘I’ll take your word for it.’
‘And it’s another track they tried out for Let It Be. And—’
‘I think there are extra lyrics.’
The next track was quiet: Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’.
Lightoller said sourly, ‘Another Let It Be demo. But they were still keeping George in his place. First track he’s had.’
The playing was simple and exquisite, little more than solo voice with acoustic guitar, closer to the demo George had made of the song in his Beatle days than his finished solo-album version.
I didn’t recognize the next song, a Lennon track. But it got Lightoller jumping up and down.
‘It’s “Child of Nature”,’ he kept saying. ‘Fooking hell. They tried it out for the White Album. But Lennon held it back and released it on Imagine after the split—’
Now I recognized it. It was ‘Jealous Guy’. With different lyrics.
‘Fooking hell,’ said Lightoller. ‘This has only appeared on a bootleg before. And besides, this is no demo. It’s a finished fooking production. Listen to it.’
That’s Lightoller for you. Excitable.
We had reached the alleyway on E Deck that Sick Note had always called Scottie Road. You could tell this was meant for steerage and crew: no carpet, low ceilings, naked light bulbs, plain white walls.
We worked our way towards the bow, where Sick Note had lived the last years of his life.
‘Sick Note would never go down to the engine rooms,’ Lightoller reminisced.
‘“Reciprocating engines”,’ I said, imitating Sick Note. ‘“A revolutionary low-pressure turbine. Twenty-nine boilers.”’
‘Yeah. All nailed down and painted in primary colours to show the kiddies how a steam ship used to work. Not that they care.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘But Sick Note did. He said it was humiliating to gut a working boat like that.’
‘That was Sick Note.’
Away from Scottie Road the ship was a labyrinth of rooms and corridors and ducts.
‘I never could figure out my way around here,’ I said.
Lightoller laughed. ‘Even Sick Note used to get lost. Especially after he’d had a few with the boys up in the Smoking Room. Do you remember that time he swore—’
‘He found a rip in the hull?’
‘Yeah. In a post room somewhere below. A rip, as if the boat had collided with something. And he looked out—’
Sick Note had found Liverpool flattened. Like the Blitz but worse, he said. Mounds of rubble. Like the surface of the Moon.
‘…And he saw a sky glowing full of shooting stars,’ Lightoller said.
It was one of Sick Note’s favourite drunken anecdotes.
‘Of course,’ said Lightoller, ‘this old scow probably wouldn’t have survived any sort of collision. The hull plates are made of brittle steel. And it was just too fooking big; it would have shaken itself to pieces as soon as a few rivets were popped—’
Lightoller can be an anorak sometimes. But he used to be an engineer, like me.
Correction. He is an engineer, like me.
At last, on F Deck, we found the Turkish Bath.
Sick Note had made this place his own: a few sticks of furniture, the walls lined with books, posters from rock concerts and Hammer horror movies and long-forgotten 1960s avant-garde book stores plastered over the crimson ceiling. I found what looked like a complete run of the International Times. There was even a kitchen of sorts, equipped with antiques: a Hoover Keymatic washing machine and a Philco Marketer fridge-freezer and a General Electric cooker. Sick Note always did have an uncanny supply of artefacts from the 70s, or late 60s anyhow, in miraculously good condition, that the rest of us used to envy. But he’d never reveal his source.
And there were records here too: vinyl LPs, not CDs (of course), leaning up against each other all the way around the edge of the floor like toppling dominoes; the stack even curved a little to get around the corners. The odd thing was, if you looked all the way around the room, you couldn’t see how they were being supported—or rather, they were all supporting each other. It was a record stack designed by Escher.
Lightoller bent to look at the albums. ‘Alphabetized.’
‘Of course.’ That was Sick Note.
‘Let’s find the Beatles. B for Beatles…’ He grunted, sounding a little surprised. He pulled out an album with a jet-black sleeve. ‘Look at this fooking thing.’ He handed it to me.
The cover was elementally simple: just a black field, with a single word rendered in a white typewriter font in the lower left-hand corner.
Just that, the word, and a full stop.
Nothing else. No image. Not even an artist name on the cover. Nothing on the spine or the back of the sleeve; no artist photos or track listings, or even a copyright mark or acknowledgement paragraph.
The record slid into my hand inside a plain black-paper inner sleeve. And when I tried to pull out the record itself—reaching inside to rest my fingers on the centre label—the sleeve static-clung to the vinyl, as if unwilling to let it go.
The vinyl was standard-issue oil black. The label was just the famous Apple logo—skin-side up on what was presumably Side One, the crisp white inner flesh on Side Two. Still no track listing—in fact, not even a title.
I held the album by its rim. I turned it this way and that; the tracks shone in the light.
Sometimes I forget how tactile the experience of owning an album used to be.
‘Look at that fooking thing,’ breathed Lightoller. ‘A couple of scratches at the rim. Otherwise perfect.’
‘Yeah.’ An album that had been played, but cared for. That was Sick Note for you.
We exchanged glances.
Lightoller lifted up the glass cover of Sick Note’s deck, and I lifted on the album, settling it over the spindle delicately. Lightoller powered up the deck. It was a Quad stack Sick Note had been working on piece by piece since 1983. No CD player, of course.
When the needle touched the vinyl there was a moment of sharp crackle, then hissing expectancy.
The music came crashing out.
And that was how we found ourselves listening to a puzzlingly different John Lennon.
Side One’s last track was the big song McCartney used to close Ram: ‘Back Seat of My Car’.
‘Another song they tried for Let It Be,’ Lightoller said. ‘And—’
‘Shut up a minute,’ I said.
‘Listen to that.’
In place of the multi-track of his own and Linda’s voices that McCartney had plastered over his solo version, the song was laced with exquisite three-part harmonies.
‘Lightoller,’ I said. ‘I’m starting to feel scared.’
Lightoller let the stylus run off, reverently.
I got up from the carpeted floor and walked around the room. There were framed photos and news clippings here, showing scenes from the ship’s long history.
I couldn’t mistake the pounding piano and drum beat that started Side Two.
‘“Instant Karma”,’ I said.
‘A single for Lennon in February 1970.’
‘In our world.’
‘Great fooking opener.’
Then came a Harrison song, a wistful, slight thing called ‘Isn’t It A Pity’.
Lightoller nodded. ‘Another one they tried out in early 1969, but never used. It finished up on George’s first solo album—’
The next track was ‘Junk’, a short instrumental McCartney wrote when they were staying with the Maharishi in India. It sounded like the theme of a TV show about vets. But it was sweet and sad.
We just listened for a while.
With the gentle guitars playing, it was as if Sick Note was still there, in this cloud of possessions, the very air probably still full of a dusty haze of him.
…Here was the ship in dry dock in Belfast after her maiden voyage, with that famous big near-miss scar down her starboard flank. Here she was as a troop carrier in 1915, painted with gaudy geometric shapes that were supposed to fool German submarines. Here was a clipping about how she’d evaded a U-boat torpedo, and how she’d come about and rammed the damn thing.
‘“Old Reliable”,’ I said. ‘That was what Sick Note used to call her. The nickname given her by the troops she transported.’
‘He loved this old tub, in his way,’ said Lightoller.
‘And he did love his Fabs.’
That was Sick Note for you.
The fourth track was ‘Wah Wah’, another Harrison song, a glittering, heavy-handed rocker with crystal-sharp three-part harmony.
Lightoller nodded. ‘Harrison wrote this when he stormed out during the Let It Be sessions. He kept it back for his solo album—’
‘In our world.’
‘Yeah. I guess he brought it back to the group, in the God world…’ Lightoller was sounding morbid. ‘But there was no fooking twelfth album, was there? This must be a fake. Or an import, or a compilation, or a bootleg. Once Allen Klein and Yoko got involved they were all too busy suing each other’s fooking arses off.’
I picked up the album sleeve. For a possession of Sick Note’s, it was surprisingly grubby. Specked with some kind of ash. I felt obscurely disturbed by Lightoller’s loss of faith in his own bullshit. ‘But all the Allen Klein stuff started in the spring of ’69. Even after all that, they made another album together.’
‘Abbey Road.’ Lightoller nodded, and I thought the spark was back in his eyes. ‘Yeah. They might have hung around for one more try. But something would have had to be different.’
I kept roaming the room.
More clippings, of how White Star had merged with Cunard in 1934, and the old ship lost out to newer, faster, safer vessels. She was almost sold for scrap—but then was put to work as a cargo scow in the southern Atlantic—and then, after Michael Heseltine parachuted into Merseyside after the 1981 riots, she was bought up and bolted to the dock, here at Liverpool, and refitted as a hotel, the centre of what Heseltine hoped would become the regeneration of the city. Fat chance.
‘So,’ I said, ‘your theory is that this album comes from an alternate world where somebody shot Allen Klein.’
Lightoller shrugged. ‘It might have been something bigger.’
‘I don’t know. Like nuclear fooking war.’
‘Sure. If the world was going to fooking hell, it would have touched everybody’s lives, even before the Big One dropped. For the Beatles, it just kept them in the studio together a while longer.’
‘Their contribution to world peace,’ I said sourly.
‘They used to think like that,’ he said defensively. ‘What was that story of Sick Note’s? He found some way out the back of the boat—’
I tried to remember. ‘Liverpool was rubble.’
The surface of the Moon. But Sick Note might have found some cellars, where things had survived—GE cookers and Philco fridges and Beatle albums—sheltered from the fire storms, preserved since 1971.
I felt scared again.
‘We’re running out of LP,’ said Lightoller.
‘So there are a lot of great tracks not here,’ he said. ‘Like Lennon’s “Love”. Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and “What Is Life”. “Imagine”, for fook’s sake.’
‘They must have been issuing singles.’
‘You’re right.’ I could hear the pain in Lightoller’s voice. ‘And we’ll never get to hear them.’
‘But if we found the other world…’
We were silent for a while, just listening.
Lightoller said softly, ‘What if we couldn’t find our way back?’
I shrugged. ‘Sick Note did.’
He eyed me. ‘Are you sure?’
Neither of us tried it.
The fifth track was ‘God’, in which Lennon, at great and obsessive length, discarded his childish idols, including Jesus, Elvis, Dylan, even the Beatles.
‘Oh,’ said Lightoller. ‘There’s the compromise. What McCartney agreed, to keep Lennon on board.’
‘That and not doing “Teddy Boy”.’
‘At least Lennon didn’t push for “Mother”.’
I tried to focus on the music. The production didn’t sound to me much different from the way I’d heard it on the Plastic Ono Band album.
But some unruly piece of my brain wasn’t thinking about the Beatles.
Sick Note had said he saw shooting stars, everywhere, over ruined Liverpool. Oh.
‘Comets,’ I said.
Lightoller said, ‘Comets?’
‘Not nuclear war. Comets. That’s it. If a comet hit the Earth, debris would be thrown up out of the atmosphere. Molten blobs of rock. They would re-enter the atmosphere as—’
‘A skyful of shooting stars.’
‘Yes. They would reach low orbit, keep falling for years. The air would burn. Nitrous oxides, acid rain—the global temperatures would be raised all to hell.’
‘So in some alternate world a comet landed on Yoko, and the Beatles never broke up.’ Lightoller laughed at me. ‘Only a true Beatles fan would lay waste to the fooking Earth to get a new album.’
‘I don’t think this is funny, Lightoller.’
‘God’ wound to its leaden close. The stylus hissed on the spiralling intertrack, and Lightoller and I watched it. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking exactly the same.
This would be the ultimate track—the twelfth track on the twelfth album.
The last new Beatles song we would ever hear.
Because, of course, by now we both believed.
It was recognizable from the first, faded-in, descending piano chords. But then the vocals opened—and it was Lennon.
‘It’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”,’ I said, awed. ‘McCartney’s greatest post-Beatles song—’
‘Just listen to it,’ said Lightoller. ‘He gave it to Lennon. Listen to it.’
It didn’t sound like the version from our world, which McCartney, battered and bruised from the break-up, recorded in his kitchen.
Lennon’s raw, majestic voice wrenched at the melody, while McCartney’s melodic bass, Starr’s powerful drumming, and Harrison’s wailing guitar drove through the song’s complex, compulsive chromatic structure. And then a long coda opened up, underpinned by clean, thrusting brass, obviously scored by George Martin.
At last the coda wound down to a final, almost whispered lament by Lennon, a final descending chord sequence, a last trickle of piano notes, as if the song itself couldn’t bear to finish.
The stylus hissed briefly, reached the run-off groove, and lifted.
Lightoller and I just sat there, stunned.
Then the magic faded, and I got an unwelcome dose of reality: a sense of place, where we were and what we had become: two slightly sad, slightly overweight, forty-ish guys mourning the passing of a friend, and another little part of our own youth.
Lightoller put the album back in its sleeve, and slotted it carefully into its place.
We found our way outside, to the dock.
The old ship’s stern towered over us. It was late by then, and the ship blazed with light from its big promenade decks and the long rows of portholes. Up top, I could see the four big funnels and the lacework of masts and rigging. People were crossing the permanent gangways that had been bolted to the side of the ship, like leashes to make sure she never shook loose again.
‘She’s an old relic,’ said Lightoller. ‘Just like Sick Note.’
‘All fooking bullshit, of course,’ he said.
It was starting to rain, and I felt depressed, sour, mildly hung over. I looked up at the stern and saw how the post-Heseltine paint job had weathered. Even the lettering was running. You could still make out the registration, LIVERPOOL, but the ship’s name was obscured, the I’s and T’s and the N streaking down over the hull, the A and C just blurred.
We turned our backs and started the walk to the bus stop.
Lightoller and I don’t talk about it much.
I’d like to have heard those singles, though.